Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When God Asks You to Fight a Losing Battle

I knew I had to get off the couch.

I needed to get ready for Bible study.

But my head was pounding.  I was burning up and I kept getting chills.  If I can just stand up and get myself going...  I stood up and instantly felt dizzy.  I took a few halting steps towards the kitchen and then figured I needed to lay back down, at least for a minute.  I'd thought coming home and resting for an hour or so would prepare me.  Apparently it wasn't enough.

I'm not above calling my mom to ask for advice when I'm sick, so that's what I did.

"Well," I told her, "my symptoms are that I'm getting chills but I'm also really hot.  And when I stand up I get dizzy.  But I need to go to Bible study..."

"Michael, I recommend cancelling the Bible study.  You should stay home and rest."

"Yeah but...yeah, I guess you're right."

I hung up the phone, but I felt defeated.  Usually I could push through tiredness or lack of food or slight headaches or coughs or sore throats...but this time I felt like I couldn't physically make it happen.  There were visitors coming.  I was going to be out of town the next week too.  I felt like a lot of the young people were in a critical place, spiritually.  No one to fill in or take my place on such short notice.  And I was stuck on the couch with a fever.

I had been looking over the passage of Scripture I was supposed to teach on during my "resting" time, when I couldn't fall asleep, and now one of the verses came blaring back into my mind.

"Hosea 10:9  O Israel, thou hast sinned from the days of Gibeah: there they stood: the battle in Gibeah against the children of iniquity did not overtake them." (KJV)

Maybe it was because I was physically worn down and exhausted.  Maybe it was overreaction.  But the verse seemed to slam against my soul and I broke down.  I admit it: I started crying.  Memories of every failure and every person I had ever tried to help or minister to spiritually who had ended up rejecting the truth and/or love of God that I tried to present to them came flooding into my mind.  I had failed over and over and over again in the battle against the kingdom of sin.  I couldn't think of many successes I'd had in all the Bible studies or all the people I had ministered to.  In the battles God had asked me to fight, I had done a lot of losing...and not a whole lot of winning.

Now I know you're probably thinking: "What in the world?  Of all the obscure verses to react to and wimpy ways to act when you're feeling sick...maybe I should find the blog of a sane person to read."

Hear me out, and I'll explain the verse and hopefully encourage you in the process.  But have you ever felt worn down like that?  Like God has asked you to fight a battle that you keep losing?  If so, I believe it will be worthwhile to take a look at the story about the days of Gibeah.  But before we do that, a couple warnings...

*WARNING*  We are about to look at one of the R-rated stories of the Bible, and it's pretty disturbing. Most people don't make a habit of discussing this one very frequently.  Parents you may want to peruse this one before reading it to your kids as a bedtime story.

*DISCLAIMER*  I realize other translations take a different view of Hosea 10:9 than I did in my delirium, but the story of Gibeah speaks for itself, and the point I took from the verse in Hosea can be gleaned separately from the story about Gibeah, so don't take me the theological whipping post for my particular King James-inspired interpretation. :)

Okay, now that that's out of the way, what is all this stuff about Gibeah?

Herein lies a story that should both shock and disturb us and make us feel more than slightly uncomfortable. It took place in the days of the Judges (as did several other of the strangest stories in the Old Testament) when, as the last verse of the book says, there was no king in Israel and everyone did that which was right in his own eyes.

Against this backdrop of no central leader or government, Judges chapter 19 tells about a certain Levite (a member of the tribe of people God had set apart specifically to serve Him out of all the tribes of Israel) had a concubine. Already a little weird.  The Bible tells us that "she played the whore against him" (in other words she was messing around with some other guy) and then took off to her dad's house.  As her "husband", the Levite went to win her heart again and bring her back home with him.  Her dad was thrilled, and after they spent some time together, the Levite set out on the journey home with his concubine.

Here's where the story heads down the path that makes our stomachs turn.  They get a late start heading back home, and night comes upon them before they've reached their original destination, and it becomes clear that they'll have to stop somewhere for the night.  One of the servants wants to go to into a Jebusite city, which is close, but the Levite is worried about what these heathen might do to them and insists that they stop in a city that belongs to Israel (ironic, as it turns out).  Unfortunately, they choose a Benjamite city called Gibeah.  (Were you wondering when Gibeah would come into the picture?)

When they reach the town, they meet a guy who's from the same area, and who graciously offers them a place to stay, and is a little oddly very determined that they won't stay in the street.  As the story progresses we find out why he was so worried about that prospect for them.  They're having a good time drinking wine and stuff, when some evil men from the town whom the Bible calls "sons of Belial" surround the house, and begin beating on the door, demanding that the host bring out his guest so they can have their way with him.  In our day and age it should be easy to fill in the blank about what that means.

In a despicable turn of events, the Levite's concubine is offered up instead.  The evil men rape her, and when the Levite comes out the next morning, he finds her dead on the doorstep.

A horrible story.  But it doesn't end there.  The Levite is shocked that the men of his own country could do such a thing, so in an effort to shock the 12 tribes, he cuts up the concubines body into 12 pieces and mails a piece to the leadership of each tribe.  It works.  The people of Israel are incensed that something so wicked would happen amongst their own people.  They call a big meeting and decide that the men of that city must be punished.  Such an atrocity must not be permitted.  The people of Israel demand that the tribe of Benjamin deliver up the men who committed the crime so that they can be put to death.  Benjamin refuses.  Things escalate quickly, and soon Benjamin is preparing for war against the other tribes.  Civil war has erupted in Israel.

We could say that the people of Israel were overreacting.  But they didn't charge headlong into the fight.  They went before the Lord and sought counsel from God before proceeding with anything.  They even asked which tribe should go up first, and the LORD answers.  "Judah."  Everything seems to have fallen into place.  God has ordained this battle against a clearly wicked sin that must be punished.  He has given His approval and He has always fought on Israel's behalf before.  The odds are good.  400,000 men of Israel versus 26,000 men of Benjamin.  If God has spoken to the children of Israel to go to battle in a battle that is clearly good versus evil, would you not expect the good side to win?  Seems pretty straight-forward to me!

Want to know the only problem?

The men of Benjamin are strong, particularly the men of Gibeah.  Gibeah, the hometown of those wicked sons of Belial, has 700 chosen men, who are all left-handed, and of whom the Bible says "every one could sling stones at an hair breadth and not miss." (Judges 20:16)  Those are some strong numbers on the evil side!  The children of iniquity were powerful and strong.  And you know what?

The good side loses.

They lose 22,000 men.  The men of Israel go to battle against Benjamin, Judah going up first...and they lose.  After God told them to go.  What?

Stunned by their defeat, the children of Israel go up before the Lord, weep and once again ask His counsel.  "Shall I go up again," is the question of Israel, "to battle against the children of Israel my brother?"  Maybe they made a mistake.  Maybe they heard God wrong.  Maybe they missed some instructions.  But you know what God answers? "Go up against him."  God tells them to go again!

Surely they'll win this time!  The people of Israel encourage themselves and set out again. And you know what happens?  18,000 men are struck down by Benjamin...and Israel loses.  Again.  For the second time in a row.  In a battle the Lord told them to fight.

There they stood.  The battle in Gibeah against the children of iniquity did not overtake them.

I imagine there were a lot of questions that night.  God knows the end from the beginning, doesn't He?  God could have helped us win the battle, couldn't He?  Why didn't He then?  Why did God send us out not once but TWICE to fight a battle He knew we were going to lose?  At the cost of 40,000 men??

I think we feel that way sometimes.  We're fighting a battle that we know God wants us to fight.  Maybe it's in prayer for a lost soul.  Maybe it's a battle against an addiction like smoking or porn or homosexual inclinations.  Maybe it's a fight against the devil trying to destroy your family.  And you know God has ordained the battle.  He's told you to fight it.  But you lose.  Multiple times.  Does God really want you to keep fighting?  Even though He knows that the outcome will involve multiple losses?  I think the story of Judges shows us that yes...He does. Sometimes He asks us to fight those battles, even if we lose.

Now, there are probably a lot of theories on why God would do this. In fact, if you have any theories about why this happened in this particular story in Judges, I would love to hear them, because, to tell you the truth, I'm confused about why God would ask them to fight a battle He knew they would lose.  But for the moment, let's not focus on the why.  Let's just acknowledge that that indeed happened.  What are the children of Israel supposed to do now?

The Bible tells us: "all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the LORD, and fasted that day until even, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. 27 And the children of Israel enquired of the LORD, (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 And Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it in those days,) saying, Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease?" (Judges 20:26-28)

I love that they went before God again, fasting, and weeping, and giving offerings, and yet again, inquired of the Lord. And the answer came.

"And the LORD said, Go up; for to morrow I will deliver them into thine hand."

And finally, the third time they went to battle...they won.

If you want to read the details of the battle and the strategy they employed, take a look at the rest of Judges chapter really is a fascinating account.  But for the moment, let's draw back and look at the overall picture.

Sometimes we get the mentality that if God asks us to do something, it's going to be smooth sailing.  And that if it's hard, or if we fail, then it must not have been God who directed us into it.  However, to me, this story in Judges indicates clearly that that's not the case.  Sometimes, for whatever reason, God expects us to fight and fail and lose and fight again.

What do we do when we're in that scenario?

We fight again.  We go before God.  We seek His counsel.  We fast.  We weep. We pray.  We make offerings.  We inquire of Him.  And then we fight again.

What we can't do is give up.

What we can't do is give in and walk away.

You may have failed the first two times...but if God is in it, the third time, you will win! You may fail the first ninety-nine times!  But if God has directed you to fight the battle, keep fighting, and the hundredth time you'll win.

When everyone else is leaving God, the best attitude to have is that of Peter.  When the Lord turns to us and asks, "Will you go too?  Are you also giving up on Me?"  I want to be like Peter and say, "Lord, where will we go?  You alone have the words of eternal life.  Jesus, I may not understand all this stuff you've been saying about eating your flesh and drinking your blood, but I know YOU.  And I'm with You till the end. No matter where you lead us."

Remember I said some other translations have a different view of Hosea 10:9 than the discouraging view I took in my sickness? (And by the way, somebody filled in for me that night at Bible study.)  The ESV has a much more positive translation:

"From the days of Gibeah, you have sinned, O Israel; there they have continued. Shall not the war against the unjust overtake them in Gibeah?" (ESV)

Eventually, the war against the unjust WILL overtake them.  The question is whether you'll keep fighting.

If you feel like you're in a losing battle today, but you know God wants you to fight it, I want to encourage you: Don't give up.  Don't give up on your family, your church, the lost, overcoming personal sins or addictions. The Lord is with you. And will win.